He trained our children with Skittles.
Sometimes he used little wads of paper. Any time we were in public places together, like watching a game or something, my ex would take a napkin or a popcorn bag and tear it up and throw little pieces of it at them if they were sitting with me.
Or he’d buy a bag of Skittles and throw them, one at a time, giggling and smiling as he bounced them off the backs of their heads until they got up from their place beside me and moved over to sit with him.
Then he would let them relax.
It sounds miniscule. But that’s where parental alienation lives—in every miniscule detail. It’s not just in court—it’s also in the granular. In the point where a child finds peace. In the way a parent makes sure that a child only feels settled when sitting in the right place.
In our situation, any sitting was going to be with my ex. And if our children were with me in any place or on any level, he made sure they felt uncomfortable in ways that can’t easily be described. Because what was I going to tell their guardian or the attorneys who hated the concept of alienation in the first place—that my ex was alienating our children from me with Skittles?
I’d already said, “He’s not badmouthing me as much as he is inspiring them to hate me.”
And that sounded ridiculous to them. It got worse when I told them he was encouraging our children to burn everything I gave them. Instead of believing me or investigating further, they simply decided I was off.
(It’s amazing how people can make negative judgments about a person just based on that person’s proximity to someone who is doing insane or terrible things.)
Because his methods sounded too crazy to be real. But they were real. Even the burning—I found photos in my family’s shared photo cloud of burnt clothing I’d bought for them. I learned that their father built bonfires and encouraged them to burn or even shoot up any gifts or clothes or anything I gave them to prove that they wouldn’t be bought—that their mother couldn’t buy their love.
“Mom, you can’t buy our love.”
That got to me.
After a while, everything got to me. Watching him inspire them to hate me in a world that couldn’t see what he was doing and that shamed me if I tried to explain—now that’s an exercise in hopelessness.
That’s an exercise in despair.
But I kept talking to the attorneys and the guardian, anyway. I told them about Skittles and fires and the way he blocked my calls and told the kids I’d never called at all, “She must be off with some man again.” All of that, no matter how nutty or scrambled or low-class it sounded, all of it was what I needed people to know. I needed them to hear what he said and how clever he was. How he positioned himself as being on their side and clearly established that I was an ominous other.
“Daddy can’t even take us on vacation this year because you took all his money.”
“You lie, Mom. You lie. Dad shows me all your texts and how you lie to him.”
“Dad just wants us to be a family. You’re the one who ruined everything.”
“Dad said we’re a team. We stick up for each other.”
“Daddy was burning my sheets on the bonfire and I was like crying and he said to go inside and be quiet because if I wasn’t going to stay with him more then I didn’t need sheets, anyway.”
Bern, my therapist, said he was poisoning the well. At least he could understand—his sister had also been alienated from her kids. My children’s therapists, however, told me that if a parent is truly connected, then they can never be alienated from their children. And that all I had to do was focus on my connection.
Bern said that was bullshit. I agreed then, and I still do now. If a stranger can brainwash an adult, why can’t a father brainwash a seven-year-old child?
“Your kids have been hearing this shit all their lives,” Bern pointed out in an appointment. “He has them believing that you’re chasing him around with a giant club. Think how that feels to them, to hear that all the time. ‘Oh, well, you know how your mom is,’ or ‘I’m sorry, guys, but we can’t stay at the zoo because your mom’s throwing a fit again about her parenting time—she just doesn’t understand us.’ How’s a six-year-old supposed to take that in? It becomes normal to them.” Bern paused and leaned forward just a bit for emphasis. “He’s poisoning the well.”
I always wanted people to understand that. But in a world that doesn’t believe in alienation and needs to see X-rays before the court system will believe you’ve been abused, it’s hard to talk to people about brainwashing and fire and Skittles.
It’s hard to find anyone who can hear.
I’ll never forget when I tried to talk to my new attorney about parental alienation for the very first time. He was annoyed before I’d said five words on the matter, but he sat back and crossed his arms and listened, rocking forward and back in his lawyer’s chair impatiently. When I was done explaining, he gave me the most typical response in the world.
“I don’t know about this alienation stuff, Helen. I just—I just don’t know. I do hear what you’re saying. And maybe he is a little possessive of the kids.” He nodded toward me to show me that he could give me that much. “But it just seems like if you were getting it right as a mother, then you wouldn’t be where you are. I just can’t see this happening to a good, steady mom.” He rocked back.
“So that’s something to think about.”
Note from the author: Despite low, scary moments when I thought I might lose my children entirely, my relationship with them is strong today. I’m sharing my story because there’s one critical factor that kept my ex from brainwashing them entirely and “winning” in his mind. Here’s the factor: despite the fact that the court would not even discuss parental alienation, they did eventually enforce my equal parenting time and told my ex to stop trying to take them outside of his time. Because of this, my children were able to experience me for themselves. I’m a good, loving, strong parent—and my protected time with them helped them remember that fact. It’s what saved everything. All I needed was the time.
I want court systems to protect the parenting time of alienated parents in spite of of the charm and manipulation of sociopathic alienators who claim it should be otherwise.
H.G. Beverly is the author of The Other Side of Charm and is currently working on her next book. This post can also be found on hgbeverly.com.